The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: Angels and Flies

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Beatrice Marovich is an assistant professor of theological studies at Hanover College. She works at the intersection of philosophy and theology and is currently working on a book called Creature Feeling: Political Theology and Animal Mortality.

Gilles Deleuze was no great proponent of theology. But he did recognize a kind of potency that was present, at least historically, in the concept of God. In a lecture on the early modern work of Spinoza, Deleuze posed that, prior to the 17th century, the figure of God gave philosophers a kind of creative freedom. This is not to say, of course, that these thinkers weren’t constrained in many ways by church authority. But, Deleuze suggests, philosophers were nevertheless able to work with these constraints in order to render them, instead, “a means of fantastic creation.” Working with the figure of God offered these thinkers a kind of conceptual opportunity—to think right alongside a figure that was, itself, entirely free of constraints. “With God,” Deleuze suggests, “everything is permitted.” Concepts, when pushed up against the figure of God, became free of the task of representation. Concepts could take on “lines, colors, movements” they would never have had “without this detour through God.” There was, Delezue suggests, a kind of joy in this intellectual labor.

For Deleuze, the creative joy of thinking with God was essentially a thing of the past. But in The Self-Emptying Subject: Kenosis and Immanence, Medieval to Modern Alex Dubilet seizes upon this old conceptual opportunity like it’s a live wire. Alex is not particularly interested in doing theology, at least not in the manner that contemporary academic theologians tend to self-consciously understand their intellectual labor. But Alex is invested in, as he puts it, “deactivating the battlefield of disciplinary polemics” that draws and re-draws the methodological boundary lines between religious and philosophical discourses over and over and over again. “Before we are philosophers or theologians, we are readers and thinkers,” Alex writes. And so, against these embittered polemics, Alex confounds the disciplinary boundaries between philosophy and theology, refusing to allow his project to be contained by either normatively religious or secular discursive limits. He takes some of his own detours through the figure of God. And he seems to find a contemplative but irreverent joy in this intellectual adventure. Yet he doesn’t stay on those roads, either. Instead he charts a winding footpath along the edges of philosophical and theological thought that is much more enticingly odd, and singular.

Continue reading “The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: Angels and Flies”

Christianity, Race and Colonialism

My other new course this year is a new module I’ve designed entirely from scratch on Christianity, Race and Colonialism, which I’ll be teaching to second and third year undergraduates. I’m really excited and also extremely nervous about it, but currently feeling pretty pleased with the syllabus. I teach alternate week advanced seminars with the third years, so for those sessions we’ll be focusing on more advanced theoretical material and trying to think through how those additional readings relate to the course. I’ve given all the students a relatively open brief for the oral exam at the end of the course and am really excited to see what they come up with. The syllabus runs as follows:

Continue reading “Christianity, Race and Colonialism”

Disagreeing to agree: On theological dialogue

A commenter recently asked me to clarify the stakes of a comment-thread debate, and ultimately all I could say was that I was advancing a consistent position, but it seemed to me that my interlocutors were constantly moving the goalposts so that my critique would not fully apply. This was emblematic of my interactions with confessional theologians at that time, particularly Barthians. They would agree that traditional articulations of (for instance) transcendence were problematic, but that only meant that we had to find the good transcendence! Often Karl Barth was held to be the source of the “good version,” which was so radically distinct from the pre-Barthian version as to be invulnerable to any conventional line of attack. It was almost a parody of Dan Barber’s critique of the quest for “good versions” — but with no attempt to articulate the concrete difference between the good and bad versions. If I did not concede that they indeed had a better version of what I was critiquing, the conversation would veer toward a consideration of how we could never truly have a conversation in the first place due to our incompatible axiomatic commitments. The whole thing became tiring, presumably from both ends — most of that traditional theology crowd does not show up in comment threads anymore (though comments are very inactive generally speaking).

Prior to the resort to incommensurable values, the exchange reminded me of a conversation I had with a Nazarene youth pastor. This was a “cool” youth pastor, someone I had gone to college with, someone who listened to Radiohead. I had just read Blue Like Jazz at my mom’s recommendation, and I shared that it made me viscerally angry, because it seemed to be nothing but an attempt to rationalize remaining affiliated with something that was hurting the author and other people around him. When pressed, I suggested that the youth pastor was doing the same thing. His objective function was to make young people feel just comfortable enough being affiliated with the church that they would maintain that affiliation through young adulthood and ultimately raise their children in the church — an institution that, I consistently argued, would hurt them as it had hurt me (and honestly, had hurt everyone in that room).

I was arguing, in short, that he had an ethical obligation to quit his job and abandon the institution he had chosen to serve, but he kept insisting that we were not in fundamental disagreement and could hash the issue out over a couple beers (because, yes, he was that kind of hipster Christian). At that point, simple disagreement would have been a relief — in fact, anger and outrage would have been a relief. After all, I was telling him his life’s calling was destructive and dangerous. In this situation, if he had veered toward a meta-conversation about how we come from such different starting points that we can’t even really have a conversation, it would have felt dishonest and even passive-aggressive. It would have been a coded way of saying that because I’m not a Christian, because I’m not saved, because I’m lost and mired down in the false wisdom of this world, I can’t understand the goodness they experience, or why it’s important to maintain the connection to the church even with all its faults.

The Radically Orthodox are more honest in their presentation, when they talk of secular philosophy as representing “fallen reason,” as a form of malign nihilism. Of course, their God is able to turn evil to good, and the same holds for the conceptual ingenuity of the nihilists. You can have all that is best in those philosophers you love, all that is compatible with Christ — and the theologian is offering you that opportunity. You can have your social critique, to the exact extent that it does not threaten the foundations of Christian dogma. You can have your quest for justice, which turns out to point toward a revamped version of Christendom.

You really can have it all! All the wisdom of this world, all the kingdoms of the world they will give you, if you will bow down and worship…. And if you won’t? Then you must have misunderstood, or be beyond saving. The resort to incommensurable axioms is a euphemism, a fake — because they can’t admit that you genuinely have a principled position of your own. They can’t do you the courtesy of directly disagreeing. At this point, one wishes for the straightforwardness of Satan, who responded to Jesus’ rejection of his offer by arranging to have him killed. The prince of this world did not realize that it can often be worse to kill them with kindness.

Social theory, race, and theology

A basic principle of the social sciences is that systemic effects have systemic causes. A classic example is Durkheim’s Suicide, where he argues that none of the individual reasons that people choose to take their own lives can account for the suicide rate in a given society — only an analysis of the general shape of those societies can explain a fundamentally social fact like the suicide rate.

There is a conservative form of faux-social science, of which David Brooks is probably the most self-conscious adherent. It tries to appear that it has tracked down systemic causes for the systemic effects it bemoans, but in reality it is still performing a fundamentally individualistic analysis. Social forces mutate into social trends, usually of a highly moralistic bent. Hence a Brooksian analysis of suicide rates might say that people are becoming less optimistic, more despairing, less serious about their duties to others, etc., etc.

This looks like a social cause because it’s a generalization about a lot of people. But if we ask David Brooks what caused people to become less optimistic, etc., in the last analysis all he can say is that a critical mass of people up and decided to stop being optimistic. And how do we solve this problem? Through moral exhortation that will make people up and decide to have hope again. Continue reading “Social theory, race, and theology”

Scattered thoughts on transubstantiation

Lately, for reasons that are unclear to me, my thoughts have turned to the doctrine of transubstantiation, and those thoughts have reached a form that is probably blog post-worthy — hence I share them with you now.

One very basic point we learn from Lindbeck is that when we are confronted with a doctrine, we should look to its consequences for behavior rather than focusing solely on the thoughts it prompts in someone’s head. With trinitarian doctrine, for instance, Lindbeck thinks we are dealing not with positive truth claims but with a kind of grammar that guides the way we concretely talk about God in trinitarian terms — i.e., the doctrine is not primarily about what we believe but what we say.

In the case of transubstantiation, the practical payoff is obvious in liturgical terms. If the bread really and irreversibly “becomes” Christ, then we need to take the utmost care of it, be very selective about who gets to participate in it, and carefully preserve any leftovers. In the last resort, it even becomes possible to envision the direct worship of the reserved Eucharistic host.

What is less clear is what we should do with the apparent consequences of the doctrine for the world outside the liturgical space. One implication, for instance, is that if a consecrated host is taken from the church setting and lost, then the real Body of Christ is just kind of sitting around, decomposing, being eaten by rats, etc. The immediate practical response to that implication is, once again, to carefully keep the host inside the liturgical context where it can be properly cared for.

Yet what do we do with the claim that the host still is Christ in the unfortunate event that it falls outside the liturgical circle? In some settings, people have drawn the conclusion that the power of Christ is available for abuse by those outside the church — witches or Jews, for instance. The seemingly narrow claim about the status of a particular wafer of unleavened bread then takes on much broader consequences for the relationship between the church and the world, which is envisioned as one of antagonism. We need to carefully contain the transubstantiated host within the liturgical context because it represents a power that outsiders want to seize for themselves.

Even without that explicitly polemical bent, however, the claim that the host really is Christ even outside the liturgical context represents a broad claim for the liturgy over against the world — it claims that the liturgy is more real than everyday reality. There’s already the seed of that assertion of superiority in the very demand that we recognize the little bit of bread, in defiance of all common sense, as the Real Presence of Christ. The claim that the liturgical act has irreversible consequences that hold in some sense outside the liturgical context then draws out the quasi-totalitarian assertion of liturgical superiority — which helps make sense of a world in which, for example, the Pope was claiming the right to choose kings and divvy up a previously unknown continent between rival powers.

I leave the consequences of this observation for the later Protestant responses to transubstantiation as an exercise for the reader.

When shame works and when it doesn’t 

A while back, I wrote an article on social media as a platform for passing judgment. Now I’m thinking about the same problem from another angle — basically, social media often feels a lot to me like my evangelical church did growing up. There’s the same attempt to micro-manage people’s emotional responses. There are declarations that if you like a certain pop culture product, there must be something deeply wrong with you. The parallels exist even down to the level of fine-grained tropes. For instance, one frequently sees declarations that caring about one thing rather than caring about another thing makes you a bad person. This echoes the structure of one of the most famous lines in contemporary evangelical preaching, coined by Tony Campolo: “A lot of your friends are going to hell, and you don’t give a shit. In fact, you probably care more that I just said the word ‘shit.'”

What unites all these tactics is the overall strategy of shaming. It may seem counterintutive to build community bonds through shaming, but really it’s genius — if the community has an inside track on what’s wrong with you, they can also plausibly claim privileged access to the solution. Wrapping up a certain standard into someone’s deep emotional responses, which sustained shaming does, installs that standard as authoritative in a very deep way.

Continue reading “When shame works and when it doesn’t “

A brief thought on Aulén’s atonement typology

I’ve had occasion to return to the topic of atonement, and specifically Aulén lately, and a thought occurred to me: Aulén’s typology of the three main atonement theories is strikingly similar to the commonplace typology of philosophical ethics.

The “Christus Victor” or “ransom” theory is utilitarian — God gets the job done elegantly, with some ethically questionable actions, to bring about the greatest possible benefit to humanity.

Anselm’s theory (both in reality and in Aulén’s reading, a somewhat rare overlap) would be the deontological theory where the overriding priority is making sure that all the rules are followed to the letter.

Finally, the moral influence theory (which Aulén wrongly attributes to Abelard) is a virtue ethics approach where Jesus’s main contribution is just to be the amazingly excellent person he is.

In short, it’s questionable typologies all the way down.